Monday, March 26, 2012


If you were to plot the popularity of an architectural style on a stock-market style chart, you’d first see it take a quick nosedive from near-universal acclaim to near-universal distaste.  After fifty years or so of hugging the bottom, it would start a little upward tick with small-scale rediscovery and “What-were-they-thinking?”-style wonderment.  In another decade, you’d find it rocketing up through rekindled appreciation and into widespread admiration again.  

This is the classic cycle followed by practically every popular building style, from Victorian through Craftsman through Period Revival.  Currently, the California Rancher--for decades ignored, disparaged, or gracelessly remuddled--is beginning the upswing to renewed appreciation.

Alas, while architectural styles invariably return for an encore, individual buildings don’t always survive the trip.  That fifty-year dormancy period is, of course, the most hazardous time for them. Many of our grandest architectural works have succumbed to those five deadly decades, with few people to mourn their passing.  

The great buildings lost to the deadly decades are so numerous, in fact, that they’re easier to describe by type:  The great Victorian, Richardsonian, and Beaux-Arts railroad terminals, of which a relative handful survive; the sumptuous Period Revival mansions of the Roaring Twenties; the movie palaces of the same decade.    

The story of how these buildings are lost is always more or less the same. Waning popularity or obsolescence eventually leads to neglect, initiating a downward spiral that  ends in early destruction.  Even the works of famous architects aren’t immune.  Some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s greatest commissions fell to the wreckers during the deadly decades:  the epoch-making Larkin office building in Buffalo, Chicago’s Midway Gardens, and Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel are three long-lamented examples.  And if Wright’s works were susceptible, imagine the dangers facing buildings with lesser pedigrees, let alone vernacular roadside architecture.    

At the moment, late modernist works of the 1960s and 70s are in the midst of their own deadly decades and in the greatest danger of loss.  These range from prestigious buildings such as banks and civic centers, to some very competently-designed schools, supermarkets and gas stations, all the way to the “Googie” commercial architecture of drive-ins, motels, and car washes.   

Paradoxically, even though we recognize these recurring destructive cycles, we seem powerless to avert them.  Most of us can never seriously believe that any buildings from our our own time are worthy of preservation--they’re usually too familiar and too shopworn to rate that kind of affection.  For example, as a child of the 1970s, I ‘d be loathe to concede that even a handful of the horrible Mansard-roofed gas stations, office buildings, or fast-food joints of that era might merit preservation. Yet the lessons of architectural history assure me that some of them do.  

As silly, premature, or distasteful as this kind of recognition may seem, it’s the only way we’ll manage to save noteworthy buildings from their deadly decades:  We must look past the aesthetic biases of the present.  We must learn to see architecture through posterity’s eyes, and not our own.

Monday, March 19, 2012


Now and then, people ask me to critique designs for homes or additions they’ve drawn themselves. Many of these plans are both thoughtful and inventive, but even the best of them tend to suffer from one recurring flaw: Too many features crammed into too little space. 

This is a problem endemic to creative types: They’re bursting with ideas, and they’re hell-bent on including every single one of them. For example, the design for a living room might be loaded down with level changes, multiple finishes, jutting cabinets, complicated ceiling vaults, and busy window arrangements. While any one of these features might work beautifully taken alone, using all of them is more likely to yield a busy, cramped, and amateurish design. 

Smart designers rein in this natural tendency to complicate things using a sophisticated formula. It’s called KISS--for Keep It Simple, Stupid. People who subscribe to KISS know that good design has less to do with putting stuff in than with throwing stuff out.

KISS says that a few rooms with more generous dimensions are better than any number of cramped and inadequate ones. Now, since World War II, Americans have been led to equate more rooms with more prestige, so it’s no surprise that even in these days of lowered expectations, amateur designers are always trying to shoehorn too many rooms into too little space. They think that more rooms will make their houses seem bigger and more impressive. In fact, the opposite happens:  All those barely-adequate cubicles with fancy names--media room, breakfast room, walk-in pantry, or whatever--only impinge on the meat-and-potatoes spaces that are used every day.  

Within individual rooms, KISS also posits that a few generously-sized features will serve better than a whole slew of busy ones. For many lay designers, this isn’t welcome advice either, because it usually means that a number of their pet ideas will be politely asked to croak off. Maybe it’s that swanky island they’re determined to shoehorn into the kitchen, or those double lavatories they’ve cruelly wedged into a mere scrap of bathroom counter. They might even have to ax a whole bedroom to yield decent dimensions throughout the rest of the house.Ouch. 

But the value of KISS doesn’t end there. It’s also a good rule for designing elevations (the way the house looks from the street). Here, it says that a few strong elements usually give better results than a cornucopia of competing ones. In a small house, for example, one each of an eye-catching window, gable, or chimney per elevation are about the limit--more will just junk up the place. But even on a larger house, where there’s room for multiple grouped elements such as windows or dormers, one of them should always be clearly dominant.  

KISS is a hard enough rule for architects to follow--as many modern buildings will attest--but for homeowners, it can be downright agonizing. It’s not easy giving the axe to all those cool details you’ve clipped from magazines over the years. But hang tough:  you’re far better off choosing a few of your favorites and leaving the rest for another day.  

Monday, March 12, 2012


For years now, I've railed at people who remodel just to keep up with some architectural fad or other.  But the truth is that we architects are as faddish as anyone else.  A few lead, and most follow, whether consciously or not.

Architectural fads are nothing new.  For much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the English, Germans, Spanish, and most every other European nation were busily ripping off the French, whose architecture was seen as the epitome of elegance and prestige. As buildings such as the Louvre and Versailles still attest, no one could touch the Gallic flourish for theatrically grand compositions.  As a result, no self-respecting palace of the era, whether in Salzburg or St. Petersburg, was complete unless it boasted Versailles-like formal gardens and was crowned by a Mansard roof. 

In the early 19th century, excavations in ancient Athens and Herculaneum touched off a tremendous fashion for archeological copies of Greek and Roman architecture.  The French were again at the head of this new wave (soon to be followed by the Germans), with each nation building rather fevered copies of the Parthenon and other ancient monuments in the stark style we now call Romantic Classicism. 
Even in America, banks and courthouses in the guise of Greek temples sprang up in every jerkwater town, and no less an architect than Thomas Jefferson jumped on the bandwagon by endorsing the Greek Revival as the keynote style for Washington DC.

The arrival of Modern architecture in the twentieth century brought a whole new level of faddishness.  Alas, while having architects cranking out line-perfect copies of Greek temples was merely tiresome, having mediocre talents copying Modernism was an urban disaster.  While the likes of Mies, Gropius, and Le Corbusier put infinite care into their austere compositions, lesser architects simply assumed that building anything with glass walls, a flat roof, and white paint qualified them as geniuses.  It didn’t.  Such dreary, bargain-basement Modernism, which still populates a good many American downtowns, is one of the main reasons why modern architecture fell so hard, so fast.  The firm I interned with, for instance, went in big for a late-Modernist trend called Brutalism, leaving behind a legacy of memorably awful exercises in raw concrete.

It’s easy to spot such bandwagon-hopping in hindsight, but not so easy to recognize it in our own time.  Yet the purportedly rebellious styles of recent years have brought us just as many cases of architectural copyism.  One need only count the mushrooming number of buildings with outward-leaning walls, angled props supporting pointless overhangs, and strident color schemes of ochre, bile, and olive to recognize the faddishness of much of today’s work.  

Such aesthetic recycling stems, I suppose, either from intellectual laziness or from the wish to play it safe.  It takes monumental self-confidence and--dare I say it--arrogance, to put something really different before people and willingly be savaged for it.  Ironically, the moment someone does this kind of heavy lifting and manages to survive, the imitators arrive, their glossy magazines firmly in hand. 

So just imagine how many half-baked Frank Gehry knockoffs are still coming your way. 

Monday, March 5, 2012


There’s an old joke on architects that goes back to the days of Beaux-Arts classicism. It seems a big city suffered an earthquake, and a reporter was sent out to report on the damage.  He soon returned with his assessment. “The buildings are fine,” he said, “but all the architecture fell off.”

The tendency of architects to lard buildings with ornament goes back centuries, if not millenia. In more recent times, Victorian architects were renowned for their addiction to ornament. But in fact, no architect of any era, no matter how chaste, can really claim to be immune from the urge to decorate.

Mid-twentieth century modern architecture should represent, if anything, the ultimate refutation of ornament. Yet the Modernists slyly came up with their own brand of decoration, though they strained mightily to justify it on functional grounds.  

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, among the most supremely rational architects of his era, insisted that buildings should express their underlying structure. So passionate was he in this belief that when he designed Chicago’s highrise Lake Shore Apartments in the late 1940s, he couldn’t bear the thought of the building’s steel frame being hidden by fireproofing. His solution was to apply a phalanx of delicate, costly, and most definitely nonfunctional bronze I-beams to the outside of the buildings to “represent” its structural columns.

Edward Durell Stone, another stellar Modernist, did much to steer modernism into the more decorative phase it entered in the late 1950s. Stone was terribly fond of sunscreens--whether of pierced metal, cast concrete, or stacked block--and he never passed up a chance to feature them in his work. To be functional in the Modernist  sense, of course, a sunscreen seemingly ought to face the sun, yet Stone’s increasingly elaborate screens often appeared on all sides of his buildings (in fairness, Stone eventually recanted Modernism and gave his decorative gene free rein.)

The Postmodernist movement, ushered in by architect Robert Venturi’s seminal book Learning from Las Vegas, more or less called a spade a spade and acknowledged that undecorated buildings were, well—dull.  

“Less is more,” Mies had said. “Less is a bore,” countered Venturi. This rebellious premise opened the floodgates for a whole new generation of decorative architecture, some well-reasoned, some not.  
In our own time, we’re still seeing the detritus of the Postmodernist love for ironic, discordant, or illogical decoration. If anything, today’s architects have upped the ante on superfluous doodads. Rather than design growing naturally out of structure in the Modernist sense, architects are increasingly returning to the idea of buildings as mere decorated boxes, to which a profusion of nonfunctional sunshades, canopies, and metal outriggers are applied like so many bangles and bows.  

Whether we identify with Traditionalism, Modernism, Postmodernism, or some other “-ism” yet to be invented, we architects still respond to gewgaws the way ants do to a dropped Slurpee. We may think of today’s work as more sophisticated, but in that old joke’s proverbial earthquake, it still wouldn’t matter if all the architecture fell off.  The pieces would just look a little different.